Public humiliation

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Pillories were a common form of punishment.

Public humiliation is humiliation of a person before others, especially in a public place. It was often used as a form of punishment for minor and petty offences.

Shameful exposure[edit]

Flute of Shame displayed at the Torture Museum in Amsterdam.
Man and woman undergoing public exposure for adultery in Japan, around 1860

Public humiliation could take a number of forms. Most often a criminal was placed in the center of town and having the local populace enact a form of "mob justice" on the individual. The punishment of public humiliation could be, amongst other things, an offender being forced to relate his crime, such as by exaggerated physical parody: a 'shame flute' for a bad musician or wearing a giant rosary (Dutch: schandstenen, "stones of shame") for someone late to church. The offender could alternatively be sentenced to remain exposed in a specific public place, in a restraining device.

In the Low Countries, the schandstoel ("Chair of shame"), the kaak or schandpaal ("pole of shame", a simple type of pillory), the draaikooi were customary for adulteresses, and the schopstoel, a scaffolding from which one is kicked off to land in mud and dirt).

Paris 1944: Women accused of collaboration with Nazis are paraded through the streets barefoot, shaved, and with swastika burnmarks on their faces

In the more extreme cases being subjected to verbal and physical abuse from the crowd, which could have serious consequences especially when the hands are not free to protect himself. Some sentences actually prescribe additional humiliation, such as shaving, or combine it with painful corporal punishments, see below.[1]

In Colonial America, common forms of public humiliation were the stocks and pillory, imported from Europe. Nearly every sizable town had such instruments of public humiliation, usually at the town square. Historic public humiliation displays can still be seen in the historic Virginia town of Colonial Williamsburg.

In pre–World War Japan, adulterers were publicly exposed purely to shame them.

In post-Colonial times, judicial use of public humiliation punishment has largely fallen out of favor since the practice is now considered cruel and unusual punishment, which is outlawed in the United States Constitution.[2]

Just like painful forms of corporal punishment, it has parallels in educational and other rather private punishments (but with some audience), in school or domestic disciplinary context, and as a rite of passage. Physical forms include being forced to wear some sign such as donkey ears (simulated in paper, as a sign one is—or at least behaved—proverbially stupid), wearing a dunce cap, having to stand, kneel or bend over in a corner, or repeatedly write something on a blackboard ("I will not spread rumors", for example). Here too physical discomfort or even pain can be added, such as having to hold heavy objects or kneeling on an uneven surface. Like physical punishment and harsh hazing, these have become controversial in most modern societies, in many cases leading to legal restrictions and/or (sometimes voluntary) abolishment.

Having the head shaved can be a humiliating punishment prescribed in law,[3] but also something done as "mob justice" - a stark example of which was the thousands of European women who had their heads shaved in front of cheering crowds in the wake of World War II,[4][5] as punishment for associating with occupying Nazis during the war.

Forcing people to go barefoot as means of humiliation and socio-cultural degradation has been used in most civilized cultures in past and present. Bare feet have commonly served as an indicator for imprisonment as well as slavery in many countries. Even today many countries force prisoners to go barefoot. As shoes are commonly worn by all social classes since antiquity in mostly all civilized societies, forcing an arrestee, a prisoner or a person in a similar situation to be seen in his or her bare feet by the public is principally perceived as degrading in the socio-cultural context and can also be detrimental to the person's repute. It is also regarded as particularly shameful for the person if spotted involuntarily barefoot by other people from his or her immediate social environment.

Further means of public humiliation and degradation consist in forcing people to wear typifying clothes, which can be penitential garbs or any kind of characteristic prison uniforms, not uncommonly combined with bared feet.

Presenting arrestees or prisoners to the public in restraints (such as handcuffs, shackles or similar devices) also serves as a method of humiliation and degradation and can be seen as a major purpose besides the security aspects. The effect is intensified by presenting the person in a prison uniform or similar clothing.

It is not unheard of for enlisted soldiers in the U.S. Army caught speeding on base to be made to stand by roads holding anti-speeding signs.

Painful humiliation[edit]

Apart from specific methods essentially aiming at humiliation, several methods combine pain and humiliation or even death and humiliation.

In some cases, pain or at least discomfort is insignificant or rather secondary to the humiliation, as school children made to kneel facing the blackboard, possibly on a hard object. In other cases they are roughly matched, as assuming such position while holding heavy objects.

Especially in judicial use the combination often results in a very severe punishment.

Public punishment[edit]

Medieval schoolboy birched on the bare buttocks- spanking was often on the spot

The simplest is to administer painful corporal punishment in public - the major aim may be deterrence of potential offenders - so the public will witness the perpetrator's fear and agony. This can either take place in a town square or other public gathering location such as a school, or take the form of a procession through the streets. This was not uncommon in the sentences to Staupenschlag (whipping or birching, generally on the bare buttocks) in various German-speaking states, till the 19th century. A naval equivalent was Flogging round the fleet on a raft taken from ship to ship for consecutive installments of a great total of lashes, that could even be lethal. In some countries the punishment of foot whipping is executed in public to this day.

Torture marks[edit]

The 1774 tarring and feathering of British customs agent John Malcolm soon after the Boston Tea Party

The humiliation can be extended; intentionally or not; by leaving visible marks, such as scars, notably on body parts that are normally left visible. This also serves as a virtually indelible criminal record. This can even be the main intention of the punishment, as in the case of scarifications, such as branding. It invariably is essential in forms of mutilation, such as ear cropping, though the functional loss is even greater; pain may even be intentionally minimized as in the case of surgical amputation, eliminating the risk of accidental death. Tarring and feathering also serves as means of extended humiliation.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cox, James (Spring 2009). "Bilboes, Brands, and Branks - Colonial Crimes and Punishments". Colonial Williamsburg Journal. 
  2. ^ Ziel, Paul. "Eighteenth Century Public Humiliation Penalties in Twenty-First Century America: The “Shameful” Return of “Scarlet Letter” Punishments in U.S. v. Gementera". BYU JOURNAL OF PUBLIC LAW 19 (499): 501. 
  3. ^ "Article 87 ... shall be sentenced to flogging, having his head shaven, and one year of exile...", The Islamic Penal Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran
  4. ^ Antony Beevor. "''"An Ugly Carnival"'', The". Guardian. Retrieved 2014-07-13. 
  5. ^ "Shorn Women: Gender and Punishment in Liberation France", ISBN 978-1-85973-584-8